UK’s digital leaders set out goals on data and skills

By on 04/05/2021 | Updated on 04/05/2021
The UK’s new central digital teams are to accelerate their work on digital skills throughout the workforce. Credit: Rob Thom/UK CivilService / Flickr

The UK’s new central digital teams are to accelerate their work on data management across government, career development within the profession and digital skills throughout the workforce, the civil service’s digital leaders explained at an event last Friday.

To help speed up the digitisation of services, said Joanna Davinson – executive director of the recently-established Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) – her team will focus on harmonising the way that data is collated and processed across government.

“We already have a data standards authority in the CDDO and that has made really good progress on defining some common shared data standards, but we need to do a lot more,” she said. “We’ve really got to get into defining and promoting cross-government approaches on things like data registry, data models and the technical infrastructure for data exchange.” 

The UK will also mount a recruitment campaign to strengthen its digital capabilities at all levels of seniority, CDDO chair Paul Willmott told the audience at London-based think tank the Institute for Government.

“We have a great team already, but we need more exciting talent at all levels,” he said. “If you think you can be the next chief digital officer or chief data officer for the UK, we’d like to hear from you. But also, if you’re just finishing school or college and you’ve got some technical skills, we’d also like to hear from you. We’re going to be in the market for a lot of great people. We are going to be the world’s leading digital government, and we’re hoping you’ll come and join us.” 

And having attracted digital professionals into government, Davinson added, the civil service will have to adjust its career development systems to meet their needs. “We’re working with HR colleagues because we need to build a unified capability framework,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re building a career path for digital, data and technology specialists that actually values their technical skills, as well as their broader management skills, and enables them to get promoted.”  

In addition, Davinson said that the CDDO will be working with departments across government to improve digital literacy and competency among all civil servants. “I think we need to work with HR to build awareness; to build the right training to support competence and development; and actually just to demystify things,” she said. “There’s a lot of jargon and we’ve got to get away from that and make [digital] a core part of what every civil servant feels that they can engage with and use.” 

Battles won, but not the war

The panel – which also included Tom Read, the recently appointed chief executive officer of the Government Digital Service (GDS) – was unanimous in praising the progress made on digitising UK government services. However, the speakers also recognised that there is still a long way to go.  

“There’s still an awful lot that is not digitised – there’s still a lot of paper in our system,” said Davinson. “If you’re a user trying to navigate government systems, it’s very disconnected. There are a lot of broken user journeys and the burden is very much on the user to actually discover services. So, we need to work proactively with departments to look at what the opportunities are to accelerate digitisation.”  

Read agreed, citing GDS research which found many examples of services yet to be digitised. “There are really good digital services that have been built across government by digital specialist teams in agencies and departments,” he said. “On the flipside, I think there’s a risk that we’ve declared victory a bit too early.”  

He added: “For every amazing digital service that we talk about, like not having a tax disk or renewing your passport [digitally], there are probably 50 or 100 that still require the user to have a printer, visit a post box or use a fax machine. We’ve identified 4,000 services in central government alone that require downloading a PDF. There’s a lot still to do.”  

It’s a daunting task, but Davinson said that she is encouraged by the enthusiasm she has already picked up from both ministers and colleagues across Whitehall. “The good news is that as I tell the story around government, there’s a huge consensus that this is actually what we need to do,” she said. “So, I see real potential. We can build a coalition of the willing here.” 

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